Tinnitus is not a disease in and of itself, but rather a symptom of some other underlying health condition. In most cases, tinnitus is a sensorineural reaction in the brain to damage in the ear and auditory system. While tinnitus is often associated with hearing loss, there are roughly 200 different health disorders that can generate tinnitus as a symptom. Below is a list of some of the most commonly reported catalysts for tinnitus.
Biofeedback and stress management. Tinnitus is stressful, and stress can worsen tinnitus. Biofeedback is a relaxation technique that helps control stress by changing bodily responses. Electrodes attached to the skin feed information about physiological processes such as pulse, skin temperature, and muscle tension into a computer, which displays the output on a monitor. Patients learn how to alter these processes and reduce the body's stress response by changing their thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques may also help.
The majority of cases of tinnitus are subjective. Objective tinnitus is far less common. However, a diagnosis of objective tinnitus is tied to how hard and well the objective (outside) listener tries to hear the sound in question. Because of this problem, some clinicians now simply refer to tinnitus as either rhythmic or non-rhythmic. Generally, rhythmic tinnitus correlates with objective tinnitus and non-rhythmic tinnitus correlates with subjective tinnitus. Specific forms of tinnitus such as pulsatile tinnitus and muscular tinnitus, which are forms of rhythmic tinnitus, are relatively rare. Pulsatile tinnitus may also be known as pulse-synchronous tinnitus. Properly identifying and distinguishing these less common forms of tinnitus is important because the underlying cause of pulsatile or muscular tinnitus can often be identified and treated.
Individuals with tinnitus describe perceiving a wide variety of sounds including ringing, clicking, hissing, humming, chirping, buzzing, whistling, whooshing, roaring, and/or whirling. These sounds may be present at all times, or they may come and go. The volume, pitch or quality of tinnitus sounds can fluctuate as well. Some people report that their tinnitus is most obvious when outside sounds are low (i.e. during the night). Other individuals describe their tinnitus as loud even in the presence of external sounds or noise, and some describe it as exacerbated by sounds. Tinnitus can affect one ear or both ears. It can also sound like it is inside the head and not in the ears at all.
Many drugs have been studied for treating tinnitus. For some, treatment with low doses of anti-anxiety drugs -- such as Valium or antidepressants such as Elavil -- help reduce tinnitus. The use of a steroid placed into the middle ear along with an anti-anxiety medicine called alprazolam has been shown to be effective for some people. Some small studies have shown that a hormone called misoprostol may be helpful in some cases.
Health care professionals who incline to offer patients an option or strategy to deal with tinnitus are confronted with the variability inherent to this disorder.5 The cause of tinnitus can vary, although people who experience tinnitus have usually first developed hearing loss due to ageing or from exposure to loud noise that caused peripheral auditory damage. In fact, the number of tinnitus sufferers that develop the constant ringing due to hearing loss may be even higher than thought, as some tinnitus sufferers only appear to have normal hearing when thresholds at frequencies below 8 kHz are measured. Less frequently, tinnitus may also occur after a head or neck injury, or due to the presence of an acoustic neuroma. Certain medications may also contribute to the development of tinnitus through effects on hair cells in the inner ear or via mechanisms that are not yet well understood.6 This variety in cause has been the first part of the challenge in developing a “cure” or effective treatment for tinnitus. However, even for the largest group of tinnitus sufferers (those who may develop tinnitus due to hearing damage), effective treatments have been hard to come by.
Tinnitus is a ringing, buzzing, hissing, swishing, clicking, or other type of noise that seems to originate in the ear or head. Most of us will experience tinnitus or sounds in the ears at some time or another. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), about 10% of adults in the U.S. - nearly 25 million Americans - have experienced tinnitus lasting at least five minutes in the past year. Tinnitus is identified more frequently in white individuals, and the prevalence of tinnitus in the U.S. is almost twice as frequent in the South as in the Northeast.
Assessment of psychological processes related to tinnitus involves measurement of tinnitus severity and distress (i.e., nature and extent of tinnitus-related problems), measured subjectively by validated self-report tinnitus questionnaires. These questionnaires measure the degree of psychological distress and handicap associated with tinnitus, including effects on hearing, lifestyle, health and emotional functioning. A broader assessment of general functioning, such as levels of anxiety, depression, stress, life stressors and sleep difficulties, is also important in the assessment of tinnitus due to higher risk of negative well-being across these areas, which may be affected by or exacerbate the tinnitus symptoms for the individual. Overall, current assessment measures are aimed to identify individual levels of distress and interference, coping responses and perceptions of tinnitus in order to inform treatment and monitor progress. However, wide variability, inconsistencies and lack of consensus regarding assessment methodology are evidenced in the literature, limiting comparison of treatment effectiveness. Developed to guide diagnosis or classify severity, most tinnitus questionnaires have been shown to be treatment-sensitive outcome measures.
Additional conditions that can cause pulsatile tinnitus include arterial bruit, abnormal passages or connections between the blood vessels of the outermost layer of the membrane (dura) that covers the brain and spinal cord (dural arteriovenous shunts), or conditions that cause increased pressure within the skull such as idiopathic intracranial hypertension (pseudotumor cerebri). Sigmoid sinus dehiscence may be associated with pseudotumor, but this connection has not been firmly established. It possible that cases of pulsatile tinnitus associated with pseudotumor may be caused by an undiagnosed SSWA. Head trauma, surgery, middle ear conductive hearing loss, and certain tumors can also cause pulsatile tinnitus. Obstructions within in the vessels that connect the heart and brain can also cause pulsatile tinnitus.
As a hearing healthcare provider, I regularly get asked about a cure for tinnitus. Trust me, if there was one, I would be using it! I have had tinnitus for more than seven years. It makes it hard to sleep, to concentrate, to read a book. Basically, anything that is normally done in quiet became a struggle for me. (To see how tinnitus is affecting you, take our free tinnitus test.)
Identifying And Treating Any Vascular Issues. There is a very small chance that your tinnitus is being caused by an underlying blood vessel condition known as pulsatile tinnitus. Sometimes this condition is caused by pregnancy or strenuous exercise and other times it’s the result of a single blood vessel or a group of blood vessels experiencing increased blood flow that the rest of the body is not experiencing. On rare occurrences, the cause is a benign tumor known as an acoustic neuroma (AKA vestibular schwannoma). These tumors, although very rare, can cause the development of abnormal blood vessels which can result in pulsatile tinnitus. Treatment options include medication and surgery.
Use other relaxation techniques. Tinnitus is understandably anxiety provoking, often a source of frustration and stress throughout the day and night. Reducing anxiety, and finding ways to relax, have benefits for both tinnitus and sleep. Relaxation exercises can reduce the aggravation of tinnitus, and make you more able to fall asleep. A few of the relaxation techniques my patients find most effective and easy to use are:
If you develop tinnitus, it's important to see your clinician. She or he will take a medical history, give you a physical examination, and do a series of tests to try to find the source of the problem. She or he will also ask you to describe the noise you're hearing (including its pitch and sound quality, and whether it's constant or periodic, steady or pulsatile) and the times and places in which you hear it. Your clinician will review your medical history, your current and past exposure to noise, and any medications or supplements you're taking. Tinnitus can be a side effect of many medications, especially when taken at higher doses (see "Some drugs that can cause or worsen tinnitus").
Another way of splitting up tinnitus is into objective and subjective. Objective tinnitus can be heard by the examiner. Subjective cannot. Practically, as there is only a tiny proportion of the population with objective tinnitus, this method of categorizing tinnitus is rarely of any help. It seems to us that it should be possible to separate out tinnitus into inner ear vs everything else using some of the large array of audiologic testing available today. For example, it would seem to us that tinnitus should intrinsically "mask" sounds of the same pitch, and that this could be quantified using procedures that are "tuned" to the tinnitus.
Noise exposure. Exposure to loud noises can damage the outer hair cells, which are part of the inner ear. These hair cells do not grow back once they are damaged. Even short exposure to very loud sounds, such as gunfire, can be damaging to the ears and cause permanent hearing loss. Long periods of exposure to moderately loud sounds, such as factory noise or music played through earphones, can result in just as much damage to the inner ear, with permanent hearing loss and tinnitus. Listening to moderately loud sounds for hours at a young age carries a high risk of developing hearing loss and tinnitus later in life.
Vertigo is the sensation of spinning or rocking, even when someone is at rest. Vertigo may be caused by a problem in the brain or spinal cord or a problem within in the inner ear. Head injuries, certain medications, and female gender are associated with a higher risk of vertigo. Medical history, a physical exam, and sometimes an MRI or CT scan are required to diagnose vertigo. The treatment of vertigo may include:
Tinnitus patients with a TMJ disorder will experience pain in the face and/or jaw, limited ability to move the jaw, and regular popping sounds while chewing or talking. A dentist, craniofacial surgeon, or other oral health professional can appropriately diagnose and often fix TMJ issues. In many scenarios, fixing the TMJ disorder will alleviate tinnitus symptoms.
An assessment of hyperacusis, a frequent accompaniment of tinnitus, may also be made. The measured parameter is Loudness Discomfort Level (LDL) in dB, the subjective level of acute discomfort at specified frequencies over the frequency range of hearing. This defines a dynamic range between the hearing threshold at that frequency and the loudnes discomfort level. A compressed dynamic range over a particular frequency range is associated with subjectve hyperacusis. Normal hearing threshold is generally defined as 0–20 decibels (dB). Normal loudness discomfort levels are 85–90+ dB, with some authorities citing 100 dB. A dynamic range of 55 dB or less is indicative of hyperacusis.
The outlook for tinnitus depends on its cause. In people with tinnitus related to earwax buildup or medications, the condition usually will go away when the earwax is removed or the medication is stopped. In people with tinnitus related to sudden, loud noise, tinnitus may improve gradually, although there may be some permanent noise-related hearing loss.
Tinnitus is a common condition characterized by the perception or sensation of sound even though there is no identifiable external source for the sound. Tinnitus is often referred to as a “ringing in the ears.” However, the sounds associated with tinnitus have also been described as hissing, chirping, crickets, whooshing, or roaring sounds, amongst others, that can affect one or both ears. Tinnitus is generally broken down into two types: subjective and objective. Subjective tinnitus is very common and is defined as a sound that is audible only to the person with tinnitus. Subjective tinnitus is a purely electrochemical phenomenon and cannot be heard by an outside observer no matter how hard they try. Objective tinnitus, which is far less common, is defined as a sound that arises from an “objective” source, such as mechanical defect or a specific sound source, and can be heard by an outside observer under favorable conditions. The sounds from objective tinnitus occur somewhere within the body and reach the ears by conduction through various body tissues. Objective tinnitus is usually caused by disorders affecting the blood vessels (vascular system) or muscles (muscular system).
Some people experience a sound that beats in time with their pulse, known as pulsatile tinnitus or vascular tinnitus. Pulsatile tinnitus is usually objective in nature, resulting from altered blood flow, increased blood turbulence near the ear, such as from atherosclerosis or venous hum, but it can also arise as a subjective phenomenon from an increased awareness of blood flow in the ear. Rarely, pulsatile tinnitus may be a symptom of potentially life-threatening conditions such as carotid artery aneurysm or carotid artery dissection. Pulsatile tinnitus may also indicate vasculitis, or more specifically, giant cell arteritis. Pulsatile tinnitus may also be an indication of idiopathic intracranial hypertension. Pulsatile tinnitus can be a symptom of intracranial vascular abnormalities and should be evaluated for irregular noises of blood flow (bruits).
Hyperacusis is a different, but related condition to tinnitus. People with hyperacusis have a high sensitivity to common, everyday environmental noise. In particular, sharp and high-pitched sounds are very difficult for people with hyperacusis to tolerate—sounds like the screeching of brakes, a baby crying or a dog barking, a sink full of dishes and silverware clanging. Many people with tinnitus also experience hyperacusis—but the two conditions don’t always go together.
Other therapies. Other treatments that have been studied for tinnitus include transcutaneous electrical stimulation of parts of the inner ear by way of electrodes placed on the skin or acupuncture needles, and stimulation of the brain using a powerful magnetic field (a technique called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, or rTMS). Transcutaneous electrical stimulation has been shown to be no more effective than a placebo. In two small trials, rTMS compared with a sham procedure helped improve the perception of tinnitus in a few patients.
Herbal home remedies (ginkgo biloba, melatonin), and the vitamin zinc are not recommended by the American Academy of Otolaryngology. Lipo-flavonoid is a supplement being marketed as a way to relieve tinnitus, but there is no current evidence it is effective for most cases of the condition; however, it may be helpful for symptoms of Meniere's disease. Check with your doctor or other health care professional before taking any herbal or over-the-counter (OTC) natural remedies.
Some instances of tinnitus are caused by infections or blockages in the ear, and the tinnitus can disappear once the underlying cause is treated. Frequently, however, tinnitus continues after the underlying condition is treated. In such a case, other therapies -- both conventional and alternative -- may bring significant relief by either decreasing or covering up the unwanted sound.